author On Politics

Richard Borreca

Who knows
how ‘muchness’
the state can spend?

If you listen to the Council on Revenues, the Lingle administration, and the state's higher and lower public education establishments, you're tempted to invite them to a second round of the Mad Hatter's tea party.

There's something about the calculations running through those groups that remind me of the scene from "Alice in Wonderland" when the Dormouse asks: "You know you say things are 'much of a muchness' -- did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?"

State taxes collections also are glorying in a "much of a muchness"; precisely how much, however, is what confuses the debate.

To stop politicians from playing politics with the amount of money they have to spend, Hawaii's Constitution established the Council on Revenues, whose job is to prepare an estimate of how much money the governor and Legislature can allocate. The idea was to have one number for both the Legislature and the governor, thereby reducing the political tension and increasing the fiscal responsibility of both parties.

Here's what happened this year:

At the May projection, the Council said tax collections would grow only 1.8 percent. That figure caused Governor Lingle to pull back on spending. But then, the actual 2003 tax figures showed that tax collections grew 4.4 percent.

Then, in a confusing footnote, Lingle's tax office figured the real increase to be 2.5 percent. Ten months into her administration, Lingle's watchphrase has been, "Just don't spend the money."

Last week, the council met again. Ignoring the tax department's 2.5 percent figure, it went with the 4.4 percent rate of growth and said the new growth in taxes collected during fiscal 2004 would be 6.2 percent.

The confusion was compounded because the Lingle administration failed to post the notices of the meeting and instead relied on a single listing on the Council of Revenues Web site. Interestingly, state law calls for notices of public meetings to be given to the lieutenant governor's office six days before the meeting.

At issue at the sparsely- attended meeting is how the administration reconciled its worries about losing money from high-tech tax credits with its claims that the state economy is growing. Meanwhile, pressure is growing for the governor to spend the money already appropriated in the budget.

The University of Hawaii, the Department of Education and the entire Democratic establishment are all waiting to see what Lingle will do. Perhaps a drawing of "a muchness" will clear things up.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Richard Borreca writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at


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